Christien Levien believes the easiest way to improve access to justice—which is a pressing issue in Canada and other countries, where plenty of people can't afford to hire a lawyer when they need one—is putting a "lawyer in your pocket" through an app that will give you basic legal information. That's the idea behind Legalswipe, a free app designed to inform people of their legal rights as they relate to interactions with the police.
The criminal defence lawyer said the idea came out of his own experience. "When I was in my first year of my undergraduate degree, I was assaulted by a police officer. Having to go through the local complaint system to obtain justice, I realized it is so arduous and difficult. People have these same issues and just don't know where to turn."
Launched in July 2015, the app has seen 20,000 downloads, mostly in Toronto, where Levien is based. The app also allows users to video-record their interactions with a police and send emergency messages to certain contacts when activated.
Levien believes free apps like his are critical, because there are "huge financial barriers" to getting legal information. This sort of technology can help "level the playing ground" and empower those who have been "historically vulnerable," he said.
Seeing a lawyer is so expensive that many can't afford it
A growing community of lawyers, policymakers and activists feel the same way. They call themselves Legal Hackers, and they're hoping to drag their profession into the digital age. Toronto is the latest city to launch a chapter of the group, joining others all over the world, from Boston to Barcelona to Kuala Lumpur.
In May, about 30 people met at a pub downtown to discuss creating new technologies to solve legal problems. One of the most important is how to ensure people have access to basic legal services, when seeing a lawyer is so expensive that many can't afford it.
Scott Allan, who isn't a lawyer but believes the legal field could use more "efficiency," led the meet-up. He acknowledged that lawyers have long resisted it. "Law and government are two of the last groups to get online in a proper way," he said, attributing it partly to age and a "generation gap." But of course, free apps could also threaten some lawyers' income. It's already being eroded by the democratization of certain legal services. At Walmart, for instance, people can now get a $99 will.
Until more people can afford a lawyer, many say this is a necessary step.
When it comes to access to civil justice, the 2011 World Justice Project ranked Canada ninth place out of 12 Western European and North American countries. The same report showed that Canada ranked 16th out of the 23 high-income countries, falling behind countries like Australia, Japan, Estonia, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.
The report partially attributes the lack of legal accessibility to "affordability."
"Federal leadership is needed. We can't just leave it to private actors and hope it works out"
This might be changing. Increased provincial funding and recent boosts by the federal government means 400,000 more Ontarians are eligible for Legal Aid than they were 18 months before, as David Field, CEO of Legal Aid Ontario, noted in a recent op-ed. The province has also said it will improve financial eligibility, and the federal government has dedicated an additional $118 million to legal aid plans across Canada in the next five years, he said.
Legal Hackers isn't the only Toronto group who thinks the industry could use a technological makeover.
Over the last few months, the LegalX Cluster at MaRS, an incubator that hopes to support Canadian science, technology and social innovation, has been backing startups like Beagle, a service that allows users to upload a contract and highlights the key clauses and fine print; Knomos, a platform that hopes to increase access to justice by allowing users to visualize legal information in a way that will help them understand their rights; and Small Claims Wizard, a platform guiding users through the Ontario Small Claims Court process step by step.
Joanna Lehrer, a Toronto lawyer who focuses on criminal defence and youth justice, thinks getting kids to think about the law at a young age might be one way to increase access to justice. She plans on organizing a hackathon that would host three schools from varying socioeconomic neighborhoods around Toronto. The idea is to encourage students to think about how they interact with the justice system and how those interactions can be improved.
"I believe students will learn from each other's realities and that can form really powerful partnerships," Lehrer told me. "I think it's really important in criminal justice, but I recognize that other youth may be dealing with other issues that may have legitimacy as well."
Lehrer heard about the Legal Hackers meet-up through social media, and hopes to use the network to connect with others interested in similar issues.
But how do people even find out about the online legal tools that are out there?
Gaylene Schellenberg, a lawyer with the legislation and law reform directorate at the Canadian Bar Association, says federal leadership is needed to coordinate among public and private initiatives, and to make sure efforts aren't duplicating or doubling up.
"The current situation is quite disjointed and federal leadership is needed. We can't just leave it to private actors and hope it works out."
Kristian Justesen Director of Public Legal Information & Access at Legal Aid Ontario, echoes this sentiment. "The reality of the system is that so many things are connected and they all impact one another. For example, if a court doesn't allow documents to be filed electronically, then that slows down what we do next."
Justesen is hopeful that the industry will see some big changes over the next few years, and not just at organizations like LAO. The courts have a "real appetite" to see what they can do to make the system work better and faster, he believes.
People are always best off speaking to a lawyer, but many of them can't afford the hundreds of dollars in billing fees that come with it. Until legal services are more affordable and accessible to all, technology can help fill the gap.